More Common Than You Might Think: Religious Accommodations for Ramadan
By Lehr Middlebrooks Vreeland & Thompson, P.C.
May 24, 2018
At a recent employment law symposium, a lawyer asked a panel of experts about accommodating an employee who was fasting during Ramadan, a month-long period of observance for Muslims. In this case, the accommodation was not what you might expect (i.e., skipping a meal period, time for prayer). Instead, due to the employee’s fasting from sunrise to sunset, he was experiencing some physical side effects during work hours, primarily dizziness and problems operating heavy machinery. This was creating a safety concern for the employee and employer.
Many employers might not be familiar with Ramadan and might not have ever had an accommodation request relating to the religious holiday. However, there are around 3.3 million Muslims in the United States, many of whom are active in the country’s workforce. As such, if you have not had experience with it yet, you may at some point.
In a situation as described above, there is a need to find an accommodation, not only to assist the employee in completing his job duties, but also to ensure the employee and his or her coworkers are safe. Title VII requires that employers offer reasonable accommodations for employees’ religious practices if those accommodations can be implemented without undue hardship to the employer. While this might be a rare situation at your workplace and specific accommodations all depend on your specific industry, the position and job duties at issue, and the needs of you and the employee, there are many options you can consider. First, determine whether a temporary shift transfer is feasible. If the same or similar position has an opening on a later shift (after sundown, where the employee would be able to work after eating with cooler temperatures), this might be a desirable option for the employee. It would allow him or her to limit some of the physical effects of fasting on his or her ability to complete the job duties. Second, there is also the option of an alternate job during Ramadan. If there is something available with the same or similar pay rate that allows the employee to avoid working with heavy machinery or other potential hazards, an alternate job might be a good option for both the employee and employer. Third, if an employee requests to use his or her vacation time during this period, it should be considered. Ramadan is a floating holiday that does not land on the same days every year. However, this year it began in mid-May and runs through mid-June, which is prime time for end-of-school, beginning-of-summer vacations. If you maintain certain policies about the number of employees allowed to take vacation at the same time or how vacation scheduling priority works, it would be beneficial to include a policy that allows for the employer to make certain considerations and exceptions to the standard priority policy for religious accommodations. Fourth, you can provide adjusted work hours and try to extend or shorten the employee’s schedule so he or she could arrive earlier and leave earlier, or provide more break time for the employee to rest.
In the last few years, the EEOC has taken on many religious accommodation cases. In one case brought by the EEOC, the employer agreed to settle the religious discrimination claims by modifying the break schedule to allow Muslim employees to pray and end their fast shortly after sunset, and by agreeing to train employees on religious accommodations. The EEOC’s interest in this this area of law signals that these situations can be legal pitfall for employers and is clearly an area that the EEOC will fight back on in court. As such, it is important to maintain good business practices regarding religious accommodations of all types, even when the religion or the holiday might be new or unfamiliar to you.